Eunice Martin Lim’s slim figure is hunched over a table filled with an assortment of plated desserts. In the background is a large heap of dried autumnal flowers, a russet spray that sets the tone for the colour scheme Lim is working towards.
In pursuit of perfection, Lim twiddles and twists the sweet treats, moving each concoction a couple of centimetres away before surveying the results.
Not quite satisfied, she shrugs lightly and says, “It needs ... something.”
Darting upstairs, she returns with a dated-looking handwritten script, a quill and an ink pot.
“I bought this years ago. I knew I would use it someday, ” she says jubilantly.
Adding the final touches to the desserts, she appears finally satisfied. “Yes, it tells more of a story now, I feel. People will look at the products a little longer and then I think the objective is achieved, ” says Lim, smiling.
In Malaysia, Lim (@euniceeunny) – a seasoned food stylist with nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram – has become increasingly valued for her work, which essentially involves artfully arranging food, making it look the best that it can be, accentuating dishes with props and extending the shelf life of food for as long as it takes to get the perfect shot.
This is work that will be translated into a final product, whether that is a photo on a website or menu, advertisement, brochure or a video, television commercial or even the final image in a cookbook.
Although Lim’s job – and its role in the food industry has become more crucial (and popular) – it isn’t exactly new. Interestingly, food styling dates back to the 19th century. According to an article in The New York Times, the first known photograph that focused on food (and had an element of food styling) is a picture taken in 1873 entitled ‘The Fruit Box’ by William Henry Talbot that features an artfully tilted pineapple amidst a heap of apples.
That initial image blossomed into something far more tangible with the burgeoning of modern cookbooks and women’s magazines which often featured cut-out recipes.
Still, before the 1950s, according to the book Food Styling by Delores Custer, anyone who prepared food for the camera was known as a home economist, a job that was almost exclusively reserved for women. Over time, as demand grew with the rise of television, many of these home economists began calling themselves ‘food stylists’.
In modern times, the importance of food stylists who craft good-looking food cannot be overestimated. With the advent of social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram and with many restaurant menus now available online, the difference between a mouth-watering still-pink-in-the-middle steak and a lifeless, soulless piece of meat can make or break interest and appeal in a brand.
“I think social media has driven the need for brands and restaurant owners to present aesthetically appealing images on their channels. And because more people are on social media, this means more people are looking at food images. So it is just unavoidable that brands need to level up their images so it is seen by consumers and generates additional sales, ” says Goh Soo Yin (@sycookies), an experienced Malaysian food stylist with a 33,000 strong Instagram pull.
Popular local food stylist Trisha Toh (@trishates) who has nearly 100,000 Instagram followers agrees that many restaurants and hotels see food photography as a reliable sales tool, especially if the images are strong and powerful.
“I think a lot of hotels and restaurants lean towards food photography to sell. And surprisingly a lot of them say that they really think photography helps especially in menus, because people want to see a visual before they order the food, especially in Malaysia.
“And food stylists are an important component of this, because clients who have hired stylists know that it makes a lot of difference in the final image, ” she says.
They may work behind-the-scenes but Lim, Goh and Toh wield enormous persuasive power and are probably the reason many Malaysian consumers make the modern food-related purchasing decisions that they do.
Their mastery at their job often transforms ordinary meals into extraordinarily emotive visual stimuli, which in turn converts a picture into profits for the corporations that hire them.
But to be able to capture the attention of a generation obsessed with instant gratification, they have their work cut out for them.
Tips from the pros
Goh and Lim got their start in the industry as food bloggers who took pictures of the food they ate while Toh started out with an interest in food photography.
Keen to showcase the gorgeous food photography they themselves saw often on other social media channels, all three began expanding their skill sets and embracing the basics of food styling, showcasing their work on their social media platforms. Pretty soon, they began attracting the attention of restaurants and brands keen to engage their services.
Now that they have all been in the industry for a number of years, there are a number of things that they know a good food stylist needs to have.
“I think the most important thing is to have a very good knowledge of food, like understanding the characteristics of food and how to keep it looking good for longer, because food is very fragile. Also, when you are shooting a particular meal, you need to know the recipe, the history and how it is usually prepared and served, because ultimately you want to honour the food being served, ” says Toh.
Food stylists should ideally also be able to cook, as for larger commercial shoots, stylists are hired not just to plate the food but also to either prepare it from scratch or replicate a certain meal.
“The tricky thing is to make it look really good and sumptuous for a period of time, because usually it will take a long time to nail the shot, so it is very important to cook in a way that it will withstand for some time. Also, a lot of additions have to be put into the food for it to keep longer, ” says Toh.
In line with this, most food stylists have an arsenal of tricks up their sleeves to keep food looking good for longer during a photo shoot, from adding steam to a cold bowl of noodles to dabbing oil on dried out food to give it a glistening effect or even under-cooking burger patties to make it look plumper and larger. In many ways, these little nudges help pull off a lot of the looks the stylist is going for.
Still, Goh says what they do is accentuate the existing product; not really make it look a lot different than what it actually is.
“Just one shot can take one hour and you need the food to look good during that period. But as food stylists, we work with what we have, so I don’t ask the client to provide a bigger burger patty for a burger; I just use my skills to arrange it so it looks taller and fresher, ” she says.
Toh also adds that contrary to conventional wisdom, food styling isn’t just about making food look pretty; it’s about telling a larger story that really captures people’s imagination and interest.
“I think it is more important that it’s not just pretty in the way it is plated – it needs to tell the story of the food. Every food element there is put with thought and should all be relevant to the story of the food, ” she says.
Over time, most stylists also realise the importance of having a smorgasbord of props like tableware, linen, cutlery and assorted food paraphernalia to help them execute food styling assignments. Between them, Toh, Goh and Lim have accumulated thousands of props and continue to buy new things.
“Sometimes clients want things in such a short period of time, so you don’t have enough time to source for props, so whenever I see things, I buy it – I know somehow, someday I’ll use it. Plus, I am a sucker for all these kinds of things, ” says Lim, whose two-storey studio is packed with thousands of props ranging from picnic ware to multiple kinds of wood, festive accoutrements and even vintage fare in every shape, size and hue imaginable.
Challenges of the job
While Toh, Goh and Lim are all equally adept at both photographing and styling food, the role of a food stylist is often distinct from a photographer – meaning the stylist often works only on the food while the photographer focuses on the lighting and composition of the shot, although in Malaysia, stylists are sometimes required to do both jobs.
But given the difficulty in juggling dual roles, some stylists have opted to stand their ground and only do the styling aspect of the shoot. Toh struggled to do both jobs in the early days of her career.
“I remember getting a little bit flustered because I was doing both photography and styling. I wasn’t really happy with my shoots because I was running out of time. And when you are running out of time and you’re doing everything, you have to compromise and I felt the end result wasn’t really nice.
“And so I decided to just focus on food styling, ’” she says.
Other challenges of the job include dealing with inexperienced photographers.
“In the industry, whoever is more affordable gets hired, but clients don’t really know that the price they pay actually reflects in the work flow – they get a cheaper photographer but maybe you have to spend more time on the shoot and time is money, right?” says Goh.
Lim meanwhile says one of her biggest challenges is staying inspired, which can often be hard when she has been drumming up ideas for the same products over and over again.
“When we are doing shoots too often, we run out of ideas and feel like we are trapped in the same circle. This year, I have already done five mooncake shoots so all my props are used up. Next year, the same client will want to do mooncakes again, so I have to find ways to reinvent the styling. The ideation part is very tough for us, ” says Lim.
Given the push for aesthetically driven food images, all the food stylists I spoke to agree that food styling is definitely here to stay – and grow.
“More and more young people in the culinary industry write and ask if they can do internships with me – they are very interested in learning about food styling, ” confirms Lim.
Lim herself is so convinced of the viability and future of visually pleasing food photography that she is training her assistant to be a food stylist so that she can focus on food photography and they can collaborate on future projects.
Toh also sees an increase in people drawn to food styling as a job, something that makes her hopeful for the future of the industry.
“There are a lot of people interested in food photography, and I think it really helps when they see people like us and are inspired. This is amazing, because we don’t really have a lot of food stylists around and it’s great to see that more people interested in doing this, ” she says.
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